A research team from London, Ontario’s Western University have discovered a quicker way to detect E. coli O157 in produce. The rapid-testing and more economical kit is able to identify the unique protein in the bacteria in less than 24 hours, which can easily prevent contaminated products from reaching the shelves at grocery stores.
The E. coli testing kit has food samples incubated for a few hours, then is placed on a pad; showing two red lines if produce is contaminated. The innovative method has already been approved by Health Canada and will be available to food processing facilities across Canada and the U.S. in the near future.
Western University’s advanced technique comes at a time when romaine lettuce has been recalled across North America due to E. coli contamination.
Dr. Michael Rieder, a professor at Western’s Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry and scientist at Robarts Research Institute, said the aim of the new testing kit is to assess the produce as close to the source as possible. He mentions that the team at Western U is striving to create a safer food chain, quoting:
“We are looking at this specific bio-marker because it is unique to this pathogenic bacteria. The presence of bacteria itself isn’t bad, but we want to be able to identify specific bacteria that will cause people to get sick.”
Despite the university’s ability to detect E. coli in produce in a quicker manner, other experts believe there are different methods to prevent contaminated food stuffs. Keith Warriner, a food science professor at the University of Guelph, said the aim should be a stronger decontamination process at food processing plants, rather than identifying contaminated product after food has been contaminated.
In the last year, romaine lettuce, in particular, has been subject to three separate E. coli outbreaks across North America.
Warriner mentions that the continuity of the bacteria strain in romaine lettuce shows that the initial problem has yet to be rectified. He mentions that the difficulty in identifying the source of E. coli is that from its initial harvesting to the store shelves, produce passes through several stages; posing each as a potential risk of contamination.
Warriner said that a blanket recall of romaine lettuce should have been mandatory by the government; blocking all grocery stores and restaurants from selling the potentially-contaminated product to consumers. Major food retailers such as Sobeys, Metro and Loblaws have all voluntarily recalled the product to prevent a further outbreak.
The Public Health Agency of Canada had initially issued a warning to people in Ontario and Quebec regarding the potential contamination of E. coli in romaine lettuce. New Brunswick joined the two provinces after a case was reported.
Across the U.S., there have been reports of potential contamination in California, Illinois, New York, and several other states in the Mid-Atlantic and Mid-West. An estimated 32 people in the U.S. and 18 people in Canada have fallen ill, due to the expected outbreak.
Coli O157 can cause symptoms such as diarrhea, abdominal cramps and vomiting in healthy adults, with children and the elderly running the risk of hemolytic uremic syndrome- a form of kidney failure. Symptoms usually begin to show signs around three or four days after contamination and can last as long as one week.